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Agreement Near for Prisoners to Pay Jail Bill : Lawsuits: After years of fighting, county and cities are on the verge of a settlement that would make inmates cover booking fees.

March 29, 1995|PAUL ELIAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After years of fighting over who will pay to fingerprint, photograph and book inmates into jail, Ventura County and its 10 cities are on the brink of an agreement that would make the prisoners pick up the tab.

The first night's accommodations at the Ventura County Jail could cost the suspect $100, if the county and cities agree to settle a long-simmering, multimillion-dollar lawsuit. Officials close to the negotiations say that could happen as early as next week.

"There will be booking fees, but the cities won't be liable for them," said Camarillo City Manager Bill Little, who took the lead in the cities' booking-fee battle.

"There is some precedent for (charging prisoners)," said Moorpark Mayor Paul Lawrason, chairman of the Assn. of Ventura County Cities. "You may not get a high rate of payments, but it is a good solution."

Lawyers for the county have helped develop terms of the settlement. But the agreement has not yet gone to the Board of Supervisors and still needs final approval from some cities.

Ventura County Supervisor Frank Schillo said he supports the proposed settlement.

"I think it is time to move on," said Schillo, who until January served as a Thousand Oaks city councilman for 10 years.

City officials said they think they can persuade two other supervisors to agree to the settlement.

Beginning almost five years ago, the county has been billing the municipalities $120 for every prisoner arrested within their respective city limits as allowed by state law. But the cities have refused to pay the combined $4 million accrued and instead sued.

The suit alleged that the booking fees were at most unconstitutional and at least too expensive. That lawsuit and about 14 other similar ones statewide were consolidated and heard by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James T. Ford.

Ford ruled two years ago that the booking fees were indeed constitutional, at which point most of the statewide cases were quickly settled. But Ventura County stood as one of three counties that had not resolved the issue because the two sides could not agree on a fair booking fee.

Ford has yet to decide that issue and a ruling was expected sometime this year. But Ford did rule that Ventura County could not charge the five cities that contract with the Sheriff's Department for police service, unless the booking fees were explicitly spelled out in the contract.

Right now, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Ojai, Camarillo and Fillmore use sheriff's deputies while the other five cities maintain their own police forces.

Under the proposed settlement being circulated to city officials, the county would agree to quit charging the cities booking fees. Unresolved are the bills already sent to those cities.

"That's still an issue," Simi Valley Mayor Greg Stratton said. "Is it fair to charge some of the cities and not others?"

Meeting behind closed doors Monday night, the Simi Valley City Council unanimously agreed to the proposed settlement, which does not address the retroactive fees. The five cities that maintain their own police forces--Simi Valley, Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Santa Paula--owe a combined $2 million in back payments.

Stratton and officials in Oxnard and Ventura said they have set aside the money to pay the back fees if they eventually lose that battle.

"I don't have any problem paying," Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said. "Our situation is different. We are a full-service city."

Besides, Lopez said, Oxnard officials have been setting aside $120 for every prisoner arrested in the city since July, 1990. If the settlement is approved and the non-contract cities do have to pay the back fees, Oxnard will recoup more than $100,000 it had set aside.

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